Governor Doug Burgum Is Spot-on When It Comes to Repealing North Dakota’s Parking Meter Ban

There is no question that Governor Doug Burgum is a bit of a booster when it comes to developing downtown spaces in North Dakota communities. That was his passion before he ran for office when he was an evangelist for, and major investor in, downtown Fargo.

Now that he’s in office it should surprise nobody that he’s promoting policies to bolster downtown development.

Some of this agenda is controversial. There is a heated debate in the Legislature right now over economic incentive programs such as Renaissance Zones which supporters say are needed to avoid vacancy and blight. But the perception, shared by many, is that these programs have been abused by local governments, becoming little more than handouts to the politically well-connected and huge businesses which don’t really need them.

It will be interesting to see what comes of that debate – I tend to lean toward the latter point of view myself – but one place where Burgum is spot-on is his support for ending North Dakota’s ban on parking meters.

That ban has a colorful history, born of a farmer incensed over a parking ticket he got in Minot in the 1940’s. He turned that passion into a statewide initiated measure which put in place a ban on parking meters. When state lawmakers overturned the voters and reinstated the meters, the farmer organized a statewide referendum and overruled the lawmakers.

Parking meters bring price signals to the use of parking spaces.

Today SB2247 seeks to overturn that ban. The bill, which it turns out was introduced by Senator Jessica Unruh (R-Beulah) at the request of Governor Burgum, started out as a simple repeal. It has since been amended in the House to repeal the ban, but only allow communities to implement a parking meters policy if they get approval of local voters.

I preferred the original policy – we elect all sorts of local leaders, why not just let them make decisions like this? – but the House amendments are a fair compromise, I suppose.

Because parking meters really could help a problem which plagues downtown development. Namely, scarcity of parking.

Parking meters bring price signals to the use of parking spaces. Right now downtown parking in most parts of the state has a blanket time limit for which you can use that space. But a parking meter, which has you buying increments of time to use that space, can prompt people to use their time in that space more efficiently. Parking spaces turn over more frequently when metered, and that can lead to increased business downtown.

That’s what the City of Seattle saw when they expanded their hours of metered parking. Sales at downtown restaurants went up, probably because more people were able to find parking.

Parking meters have also come a long way since North Dakotans banned them in the 1940’s. New “smart” meters can not only accept credit card, debit card, and electronic payments but they can also “determine the availability of a space, the occupancy rate of the space, the length of time per occupant, and the turnover rate.”

Not only would that data be hugely useful in setting parking policy, making access even more efficient, but it could conceivably be made available for the development of, say, a smart phone app which tells those looking for parking where they might find an open space. Or where/when the best time to find open parking is.

Some skeptics of this policy are afraid that local governments will treat it as a new tax. A way to get another revenue stream into local budgets to expand spending. It would be a mistake for local governments to do this. If a community implements parking meters the revenues ought to be used to offset some other city tax or fees.

But outside of that, parking meters are a good thing. I hope lawmakers undo the ban.

(On a related note, there was a second bill which addressed parking meter policy. HB1364, introduced by Rep. Randy Boehning (R-Fargo) would have add cities with a home rule charter to the list of communities prohibited from instituting parking meters. It failed last month on a 20-65 vote.)

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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